Designing effective spaces for working and learning: How to avoid the factory, the treadmill and the waiting room

IMG_2599In my international travels I’ve seen many amazing schools, universities and libraries, some that are visually stunning, but often there is something missing. Designing spaces for effective work and learning requires the connection of three distinct ‘spaces’ – cultural, technological and physical – each in harmony. When one is missing you are stuck in…


…a waiting room, a factory or a treadmill.

Cross-pollination is a healthy thing. I look for opportunities to experience new contexts, learn about other sectors and meet people in different professional fields. This broadens the scope of  my experience and challenges mindsets. Over the last 12 months I have enjoyed connecting with James Kemp MD at Amicus Interiors. On the one hand Amicus (which is Latin for ‘friend’) Interiors could be described as a furniture company for office fit-outs, but on the other, and more realistically,

IMG_0016The brand personifies the business and represents the foundation of trust that we place at the centre of our company culture. We are an enthusiastic, friendly team and we love what we do…

We have developed a solid reputation for meticulous care and attention to all our work. This reputation has been built upon an underlying commitment to our clients, to understand, and plan for, the key issues and challenges that surround the delivery of each project.

James visited NBCS and was struck by the similarity of our school and the work of his company, he wrote on the company blog:

Led by the inspirational principal, Stephen Harris, they have created an Activity Based Working (ABW) environment at NBCS for the children to learn, develop and have fun. If you had told me it was possible to have over 180 year 5 & 6 children working effectively (and quietly!!) in one open plan area, I would not have believed you! But when you see it in operation it is truly inspiring.

These children are given the trust, responsibility, the technology and the right support from their facilitators (the ‘teachers’) to excel. Whether they are sitting at desk, on the floor in small work groups, on sofas or beanbags, they are working away with excitement. I loved it. (Read the full blog here.)

I first came across the idea of Activity Based Work (ABW) a couple of years ago after visiting a CBD corporate refit and wrote a few blogs (like this one) about it as I believed that this approach to the work environment had much to inform the educational context, a corollary to James’ inspiration for NBCS informing work spaces.

Amicus InteriorsJames and I caught up last week, to see the transformation of the Amicus Interiors office in Martin Place in Sydney as an Activity Based Work(place). This was my first opportunity to see the new fit out. We talked about how the team are adapting and changing to work in an ABW environment. As with anything that involves people, the shift to change takes them on a journey – no fixed desks, closed and open collaborative meeting areas and close co-location with colleagues.



In our lively discussions about the places of work and learning, James highlighted the three types of spaces that must inform the effective place of work (and learning):

  • Cultural space – the way we do things around here
  • Technological space – the tools that enable
  • Physical space – the surroundings that support the work and relationships

Each of these play a crucial role to encourage innovation and creativity and foster productivity.

What happens if something is missing?

Factory Treadmill Waiting Room

When we are thinking about the redesign, refit and transformation of learning spaces, how do these three elements interplay? In 2015 NBCS ‘Project Barcelona’ will be complete – a space that is open, social and connecting. It involves new ways of thinking about school, spaces and learning for the 21st Century. Right now we are gearing up to look at what is needed to optimise the space and prepare our staff:

  • Cultural space – how will the community shift their thinking about school and then own and embrace the space
  • Technological space – what tools and infrastructure are required for the space to function as intended
  • Physical space – how will the fit out, the zones and the movement meet the dreams and aspirations for connection


Some other posts to check out:

Putting the legs on vision. Making it scalable, sustainable and enduring

There are some people who embrace change and others have change thrust upon them.

There are a few who are visionary leaders, some who put legs on vision, others who are swept along and a handful who doggedly hang onto the status quo.

Which are you?

I’m one of the people ‘who put legs on vision’. Great vision inspires me to action, then, as I look around I can see:

  • Obstacles to overcome
  • Systems to set up
  • Mindsets that need changing
  • Policies to develop
  • Spaces to change
  • Tough conversations to be had
  • People to encourage

Each of these creates the context that helps the vision becomes reality.

Change needs more than a great leader. It needs a concerted, coordinated and sustained reworking of multiple work systems. (Shea and Solomon, 2013)

‘Systems’, not a particularly exciting word, but unless the vision is surrounded by good policy and systems it won’ be scalable, sustainable and enduring.

Think about the vision that motivates you to action. Imagine a scene that encapsulates the ‘vision to reality’. If you are in education, maybe it looks like this:

2011-03-03_0088The learning space is busy, active and productive. Teachers and students are co-workers. One teacher is alongside a student explaining a concept, another taking a small group in an instructional session. You see a group of students are working together on a project together, excitedly sharing and forming ideas.

There is engagement, it is highly relational and academically rigorous. A community of engaged, motivated and inspired learners.

How do you put legs on your vision?

Have a plan to develop systems, behaviours and attitudes that  are consistent with the vision. A vision without a plan is a dream. It will remain in your head and reach a dead-end. A plan gives direction and grounds the vision in reality. It generates action.

Remember the scene in your mind? Think about it in terms of these eight areas that will keep it moving forward. They are the patterns of behaviour that become the levers for change.

Organisation: Identify the most effective leadership structure that directs, guides and values people. Can the current leadership structure be adapted for the vision or is a new one required?

Place: Establish the physical and virtual environment that maximises productivity, learning and creativity. Can the scene be achieved in the current spaces? Does the furniture work? How does your virtual space serve the vision?

Task: Articulate what the ‘work’ actually looks like. How will this be explained, supported and modelled?

People: Find the right people and equip them. What do the people need to learn, relearn and unlearn?

Motivation: Facilitate an environment that keeps your people motivated and on track – rewards and consequences. How will you recognise and reward embracing the vision and ‘having a go’?

Measurement: Measure what matters. What are the top five areas that matter to the vision?

Communication: Think through and articulate who is responsible for communicating what. How will you manage the message?

Decisions: Authority and authorisations that enable not disable, that bring clarity not confusion. What are the levels of responsibility for complexity of decisions to be made?

Your plan guides strategy.  A vision is not the past nor the present – it represents the future. It’s new, scary and unknown. The only way change will endure is through addressing the work systems that surround the vision.

Shea and Solomon identified these eight elements that represent the essential areas to the plan. Each of these points can be further articulated and developed. If you are committed to your vision, believe in it and do whatever it takes to make it happen. Here is a starting point.


Why innovate? Answer inspired by Ghandi ‘Serving the unserved’

Lasting innovation comes from identifying and responding to need – human need.

We are often reminded that people in developing nations are amazing innovators – living, that is staying alive, on less than $1 per day. Ghandi is known as a liberator and revolutionary of his people, yet he approached the issues of tackling the British colonization with the mindset of an innovator.

While I have been travelling over the last few weeks I re-watched Sir Ken Robinsons 2006 and 2010 TED Talks to see how was are tracking since this call to educational change. I had already come to the conclusion that we need both a top down and bottom up approach to change in education. Sadly, we haven’t come far too far in changing the minds of the policy-makers. Standardized tests and the focus on academic intelligence as the primary measure remains, and this still needs significant work. But simultaneously we need to keep activating at the grass roots of education.

Ghandi faced the problem of British colonization through inspiring innovation in the day-to-day lives of the people, a simple idea that would bring change. Britain controlled the textile industry in India. Heavy machinery was used to make cloth from cotton and silk. But what if ordinary people could make their own cloth? This was the inspiration behind the Box Charkha. A portable (and inexpensive) spinning wheel used for spinning cotton and silk into thread. A small idea, with big consequences.

This simple innovation, inspired by Ghandi was then developed, made into reality, by his colleague. The Box Charkha made it possible for ordinary Indian people to ‘compete with modern industrialization by creating mass individual modernization.’ (Sawhney)

Ghandi’s approach to innovation had two key elements. It needed to be affordable and sustainable. Similarly in education, we need not always assume that to be innovative, there needs to be significant funds attached, but begin as Ghandi did, making important changes at the grass roots, he was able to to more with less. His focus was improving the life of his people, giving them the tools to be able to break from the constraints of British colonization.

Learning from Ghandi there are a few things to consider in getting innovation right

How do we serve the unserved?

Does the vision have a strong human dimension?

Are our goals and milestones too safe?

How do we use constraints to expand our creative capacity?

Are we measuring the right stuff?

Who are we doing this for?

‘Today, technology can be a similar equalizer in our search for economic development or innovation, provided these technologies function to empower the individual.’ (Sawhney)

A synthesis of Ghandi’s innovation applied to education
1. Disrupt existing business models – alter the way schools ‘do business’
2. Modify existing capabilities – break down subject hierarchies and silos, work together
3. Create and source new capabilities – look beyond usual boundaries for input, expertise and ideas

When faced with innovation, there are only two choices
Leverage existing resources in new ways
Change the rules of the game entirely

The choice we make depends on the context. But like Ghandi, if we are passionate enough about educational change, we need to make a start. I was initially discouraged after watching Ken Robinson’s TED Talks to see how little governments have changed, but I know at the grass roots, so many of us who are committed to making schools and education better and more relevant to our young people.

So at the outset of 2013, be encouraged and keep the flame for innovation and change burning. Be inspired by revolutionaries of the past, who, while they were in the thick of it probably doubted the difference they were making.

Quotes: What Ghandi, yes Ghandi, taught me about design, leadership and technology, Ravi Sawhney

Model of innovation: ‘Innovation’s Holy Grail’ C.K. Prahalad and R.A. Mashelkar
HBR, July 2010

10 [educational] New Year Resolutions for your 2013

New Year resolutions provide an opportunity to press the reset button on life.


So here is a start for thinking about how you will step into 2013 and make some changes.

10. I will discover new ways of achieving the same outcome. One first step to reinventing learning is to think of new ways to both deliver content and for students to respond. Do you still think it is ‘harder’ to write an essay than build a model to demonstrate understanding?

9. I will learn from my students. Find out how young people navigate life. The reality is, they social media rather than email. What’s the most effective way to get your message to your students?

8. I will team up. No lone rangers anymore. One of the most significant images of school is the single teacher, up the front of the room facing the students. This model of teaching/learning bears little resemblance to the real world of work and learning. What could happen if you shared space, time and ideas with your colleagues? What would the students see and learn?

7. I will release control. Think about your most powerful learning experiences.  The things I have learnt deeply have often stemmed from a problem that needed a solution. ‘Just in time’ learning sticks more than ‘Just in case’. What areas do you need to release in order for your students to drive and own their learning?

6. I will develop coaching skills. When students take responsibility for learning the role of the teacher changes. The coach helps the learner to identify and achieve their own goals. These skills take time and practice to develop and directly relate to releasing control. How will you develop coaching skills?

5. I will get out of my comfort zone and build a wider network. Either electronically, through social media, locally through event/opportunities like TeachMeets; and/or travel. Connecting with people outside your everyday world changes perspectives. What’s your next step to widening your network?

4. I will consider the visual impact of content delivery. We are visual. For effective communication in the 21stC the visuals matter. Great visuals can easily convey a message and effectively make complex information simple. Some of us glaze over when we hit a wall of text. Visuals cut through this. How can your communication become more visually engaging?

3. I will change the space. When the media reports on school issues they look for photos to support the article. These are usually –  children at desks in rows, chalkboard with words and sums, teacher standing at the front – you get the picture. New ways of working need new spaces. These default images of school will only change if we change the spaces. What are some subtle changes and not-so-subtle changes you can make to your physical working space?

2. I will get mobile. Left to our own devices, we are creatures of habit we go to the same way, sit in the same place and connect with the same people. Working in cross-disciplinary teams opens new ideas and approaches. Where do you need to go or relocate?

1. I have chosen this career because I want to make a difference to the lives and futures of young people. Schools, as was recently expressed to me, are not “mortgage paying institutions”, nor are they our lifestyle-facilitators. Are you in this career for the kids first?


Leaders, Change school education in four easy steps (As if it were that simple!)

When it comes to rethinking school education I can be overwhelmed at the task and get stuck , or I can do something. The choice to take action is always the best course, but I need to be realistic about the change that is possible. I could look at our government education policy and give up at the complexity of bringing change, or I can start tweaking my own environment, increase influence and then maybe one day, feel that I can affect change in a much broader way.

Change that begins at a local level and grows outward has a much greater chance of sticking.

But how do we know the difference?

In my own life I filter ideas and passions into two categories, articulated by Stephen Covey:

  • Circle of Influence
  • Circle of Concern


It’s as simple as this diagram. Within the broader sphere of my passions and drivers in life, there are many things that need to change, be developed and to grow and there are also obstacles that should to be dismantled.

While, important, some elements of these are presently not within my sphere of influence, such:

  • national assessments
  • renewing teacher education
  • ubiquitous access to technology for all students.

I have opinions, if asked, and would love to one day be in a position that I can influence in these areas, so at the moment, they are in my ‘Circle of Concern’. In the meantime, I am focussing on growing my ‘Circle of Influence’. I have found that the areas where I can affect change are usually begins locally or within my network.

‘Leadership is Influence’.

The best way to grow lasting change is to grow your leadership.

I’m definitely not an expert on all schools and every context, but there are a few common areas in which to begin thinking about the future of school and education. Why? So that schools will engage, equip and inspire young people for a bright and purposeful future. The deeper you think about these, the less school of the future will look like school of the past, and the present.

This is what you need to do:

  1. Build vision for the future: Where are you going?

Then think about what of these look like in the context of the vision:

  1. Build capacity in the present: What do your people need to get there?
  1. Shape the learning:  What does the pedagogy need to look like?
  1. Shape the space: Where will learning take place? (Hint: think virtual as well as physical spaces)

So instead of being overwhelmed by the enormity of change and the complexity of today’s socio-political context, why not start locally in each of these areas.

She stepped back and replied, “You’re not one of those schools-with-no-walls, are you?” Who gets it and who doesn’t.

We talk about our passions, they just come up in conversations. sometimes we don’t even realise.

On the weekend I briefly met a young woman in her 20s who turned out to be English teacher from an inner London Academy. Once she heard about my work and why I was in the UK she stepped back and replied, “You’re not one of those schools-with-no-walls, are you?”. To her, the prospect of open space, students owning their learning and no longer teaching from the front sounded like a nightmare.

As an observer of people I take note of responses when I talk about what I do and tell them about  Northern Beaches Christian School in Sydney. I anticipate reactions, quite often from non-educators: “I wish there was a school like that for [insert name/me].” From educators, It seems that they are polarised in the response, either love it or hate it.

A little later on the same day over lunch I was sharing this story and telling some non-educator friends about what I believe about learning. They got it. Project Based Learning, flipped learning, choice, personalised approaches and comfortable surroundings made sense because they knew too many people who have been let down and alienated by conventional schooling.

Many of my peers, whose children are now adults, often tell of those who felt disconnected from school. They were either creative in the performing and visual arts, or were just not that conventional. My friends could see how the open and flexible spaces, focus on learning and the learner and the opportunity to develop an individual’s strengths would make a difference.

I am travelling alone at the moment so its easy and fascinating to eavesdrop conversations at restaurants while I stick my nose in a book. At the next table a father and daughter were discussing the preparation year for the final GCSE exams to come. After they talked about study and a whole range of things the dad said, “you need a strategy for the last 15 minutes of the paper. Work out how you will answer the multiple choice questions that you won’t get to, within the  limited time. Have a plan, just do A, B, B, C, C, C, D…” or something like that. Obviously, the purpose of the assessment was to maximise marks, and not show learning. This dad didn’t get it because the school system doesn’t get it (because maybe the government doesn’t get it).

Educators generally seem to be polarised on the subject. Whether it’s because open learning had (apparently) been tried and then failed in the 1970s or they are skeptical about opening up the spaces, giving freedom and embracing a different role. Just like the young teacher I met, monumental change just feels impossible.

On the other hand, there is a growing tribe of devotees to a new paradigm for school. Like us, they have seen young people switched onto learning, the significance of the high stakes relationships between the teacher and student and the quality of work that the student’s achieve. Assessment becomes a meaningful part of learning.

What would help the young English teacher change her paradigm?

  • Constantly challenging the conventional wisdom of what is a school
  • Shake-up pre-service teacher education
  • Provide meaningful, challenging and continuous in-service PD
  • Rethink assessment processes
  • Grow courageous leaders who are prepared to challenge the status quo
  • Commitment to doing both: meeting government standards and changing the paradigm
  • Provide conditions for teachers to work together, rather than in isolation

I explained to my new friend that this is a process. Obviously we can’t just push out the walls, throw in the kids and the teachers together and hope for the best. There must be support, encouragement, challenge and time. However, none of these things will work unless there is vision to show the way forward.

Coined the term ‘pedagogic nostalgia’ referring to those who long for how school was once. Let’s help them change.

We had a great time today talking learning, schools and education with some forward thinking principals from a rural area in our state. As I was talking I used the term ‘pedagogic nostalgia’, referring to the way many parents long for, either, the education they had or the one they dream of for their kids. There is a journey we need to take our parents on, to help them understand that their default ‘picture’ of school needs to change.

I remembered an opinion piece I was asked to write for our major daily, in the education section.

I’m not sure if I shared it here, but maybe we can help the community move from nostalgia to reality, for our kid’s sake.


Learning to move with the times
Technology has opened the doors to a whole new world of educational experiences.

My son attended Newtown High School of the Performing Arts. He would leave early or come home late depending on whether he had stage band, concert band, string ensemble, orchestra or choir. During his time there, he had so many opportunities: he enjoyed school, he had teachers who understood creative types and he had friends who were passionate about school.

I was grateful for this opportunity for my son, especially as he now pursues a career in music. As an educator, I wondered, ”What if every young person had this opportunity? What if there were a school for every interest and passion of every young person?” Of course, this is impossible but what if every school were a place where the spark of learning could be ignited inside each student?

My son’s story is in contrast with that of the comedian Eddie Perfect’s experience and those of other well-known Australians, as told in Don’t Peak at High School: From Bullied to A-list, edited by Fiona Scott-Norman.

Perfect recalls, ”I was always creative and wanted to be successful and do something unique but none of that was ever recognised at school. . . . It worries me. I think high school is getting so career focused. They want to form you and then send you off in a particular direction.”

This sense of disengagement is felt by young people when their passions and interests do not necessarily line up with what the broader community might value as part of a school education.

Now, technology can make any school a specialist school. It requires key ingredients such as flexible school design, personalised curriculum, equipped, passionate and supported professionals, vision-led leadership and a parent community that accepts school today needs to look and feel quite different from their experiences.

The kindergarten child of 2011 was born in 2006. If her parents were 30 when she was born, they probably left school about 1994. So much of our world has changed since then. Technology and the internet have shifted the game and the school life this kindergarten child has begun should prepare her for a world to come, rather than a world that has been.While not playing down the importance of literacy and numeracy, young people are now taught practical skills as they need them, rather than learning everything ”just in case”.

So the essential skills of the 21st century schools include collaboration, problem-solving, analytical thinking, creativity and resilience. These skills can be more effectively taught and modelled in a school that should look and feel significantly different from the experience of one teacher and 30 students locked in a room all day learning from texts that will need to be reprinted in a couple of years.

Outside the school gate, our young people experience a dynamic, innovative and creative world, yet so often it is a foreign environment. Many educators are now passionate about transforming schools; they are questioning the relevance of the accepted processes of assessment and delivery of content. They are not seeking to transform schools to make their job better or easier; they believe if they are to engage young people as learners then schools must be radically different.

Nostalgia often paints a picture of the school that parents may seek for their children. This picture can be informed by happy memories or the sense that ”it didn’t do me any harm”, to which I want to reply, ”how do you know*”.

* this part was changed by the editor to: “maybe it did”. I preferred the original.